Essay

Thomas S. Buechner
Dale Chihuly

Dale Chihuly is an astonishing creative force. He is the American glass maker, bigger and brasher than anyone else. His work can be as high as a house and as exuberant as a circus. He is known to more people than any glass maker who ever lived. He deserves a museum.

Although a stellar product of the studio glass movement which made it possible for individuals to work directly in hot glass, he is unique in his ability to work through others. Lots of others. In short, he inspires. Like Emile Galle and Louis Comfort Tiffany his designs, his ideas are brought into existence by specialized craftsmen. But unlike them, he is not a factory owner but rather the leader of a team which forms and reforms as projects and production require.

The word "team" is a Chihulyism: It means a group of individuals working together for a common purpose; It carries with it implications of transience, of constituent flexibility, of unpredictable challenges and, most important, of spirit. This is at the core of Dale's brilliance and success. He generates a sense of excitement and commitment, of being part of something bigger than the sum of its parts. As Parks Anderson put it, "Chihuly gives people permission to do their best."

And it is from this "best" that Chihuly draws much of his own inspiration. That is what makes it so successful a team as opposed to the usual pyramid of leader and followers. He sees the gifts and skills of others—and their potential—not simply to carry out his designs but as the source from which those designs develop. From his first partnership with Jamie Carpenter, then an outstanding glass blower in Dale's program at the Rhode Island School of Design and now the leading figure in major glass architectural projects, the abilities of very talented people have been his medium. "Chihuly Over Venice" is the extraordinary recent culmination of this two way inspiration: Glass makers in factories in Mexico, Finland, Japan (and others) produced "chandeliers" in cooperation with Dale and his Seattle team which reflected their respective skills and cultures.

Profoundly aware of public perception, Dale has always recognized the simple fact that most of his work would be known and his reputation built on two dimensional images of three dimensional sculpture. Photography has played a major role and here again he looks for extremely talented others to cooperate with him in creating pictures that are often stunning works of art in their own right. The book, "Dale Chihuly 1997," contains several impressive examples.

This capacity to draw on people with whom he has elected to work is extended by his natural curiosity and appetite for ideas to virtually anyone with whom he happens to be. It is a one way street, however, a joint exploration of what is on his mind, not the other person's. He constantly seeks expertise: Where can he find a solar powered typewriter? Who knows how to build an opera set from a glass model? How can he locate such and such a car? And the answers go into a generous memory from which he volunteers information whenever he finds an appropriate need. His capacity to customize his sources is legendary. From his painted shoes to his automobiles to the colored inks with which he draws. As his success multiplies so does his access to increasingly exotic expertise. Goodness knows what is coming next!

His interests and activities range far and wide but they are all of a piece, interlocked, feeding each other, bubbling up into grand new projects. Pilchuck Glass School created by Dale with John Hauberg and Anne Gould Hauberg's patronage brought together his Northwest coast origins, his students—present and former. From Rhode Island School of Design, his joyous and generous qualities as a host, his scavenging instincts resulting in the tree houses made of discarded window sash, his respect for expertise in pulling able people together and on and on. The only segmentation in the multifaceted glitter of Chihuly is his need from time to time for total withdrawal, isolation in the anonymity of a hotel room distant from the mania of the rest of his life.

Being contemporary with Dale we live with the man and his work—two quite separate entities—as if they were one. Say "Chihuly" and a picture of a dramatically photographed man with an eye patch jumps to mind as immediately as any piece from his vast stunning oeuvre. His is, in fact, his own exuberant creation, no less colorful in his dress, his friends, his photographs than the work itself. And no less attractive.

The day will come when this museum and others throughout the world will preserve him through is work alone. With the clarity that only time can bring a series of objects and old fashioned photos and films will evoke him and our era. I think the future will see Dale as a pioneer, as a link between the common purpose of the team and the factory and the self-esteemed, highly original artist born of the studio glass movement. He will be recognized for having effected a grand parade of transformations from Indian weavings to Pomo baskets, from nesting sea creatures to Persian exotica, from Japanese net floats to Venetian chandeliers. Four basic notions seem to be at the root of all the creations drawn from these sources:

First, the magnificent craftsmanship. Many of the best glass makers and decorators of our time have worked with Dale. Some of their names, scores of them, appear in the bands across the cover of "Chihuly Over Venice."

Second, a delight in color coupled with a rare instinct for its impact on texture, extravagant color in wild as well as subtle combination.

Third, size. Huge pieces challenging the strength and endurance of the most macho of all craftspeople, the young glass blower. This is more than just making it big, it is a weird and wonderful sense of scale; The large containing the small or comprised of the small or culminating in small elements or juxtaposed.

Forth, and finally, an unconditional respect for those aesthetic relationships which, I think, comprise our contemporary and seldom considered sense of beauty. Dale Chihuly's work does not make reference to the political agendas with which we have come to identify the cutting edge of the art world. I hope that the future will also find his work beautiful and decide that he transcended the trend.

Thomas S. Buechner is the founding director, the Corning Museum of Glass.

Published in the catalog, Dale Chihuly. Nagoya, Japan: Daiichi Museum, 1997.